This is the second of a pair of posts (the first considered what some of the joys in academic careers might be). Here I, suggest joy is something we need to actively notice, nurture and spread. There are things you can do that will amplify it for you and those around you.
I’m not saying we can simply wake up and decide today will be joyful, and repeat this every day. I am saying it is useful to think about joy as something we can influence.
If we focus only on the big moments, we risk missing out on lots of joy. Obvious moments might be reading the email that says you’ve been awarded a research grant (big or small – see another post on why size doesn’t necessarily matter), when your paper accepted, or when you’re watching a student you supervised graduate. Yes, those can be wonderful, but it doesn’t make sense to pin our joy on ephemeral and rare moments.
We have to notice the joy along the way. There’s a lot to be had in academic careers if we recognise it as such.
@drkellyallen’s reply to a question I asked on twitter about academic careers reminds us of special moments that are easy to miss.
Those colleagues that spend a moment or two being kind, thoughtful, or just listening. They really are a gift. I think back to last week and all of the micro moments I had. Brief, but special interactions. On reflection, they move me to tears, but also make the work worthwhile.
— Kelly-Ann Allen, PhD (@drkellyallen) November 6, 2021
Rather than waiting until graduation day as the highlight of doctoral supervision, notice the joys of supervising. Relish each progression in their research and writing, the pride you feel when they present well at a conference. Swim with them in the delights of data. I admit, none of these are my default as a supervisor: I tend to get consumed with the bureaucracy and formal assessments, worry about the feedback I’m giving. But still, many delights of supervision are there if I make the effort to notice them.
Rather than pinning research joy on positive grant decisions, or landmark papers, notice the pleasures of researching: time working on ideas, solving problems that matter, creating something new, figuring something out, generosity of research participants or disciplinary colleagues.
The same applies to teaching. There might be hidden charms in surprising places. Marking? Ugh. Or, potentially ripe with the wonders of seeing what students you’ve taught have become able to do.
Joy can all to easily be extinguished if we pay too much attention to what is easily noticed about others’ success and our own (supposed) failures. What we see of other academics is like the swan gliding effortlessly down the river. We don’t see the feet paddling frantically, getting stuck, slipping about in the murky water. (If you’ve read my previous post, on research grants, you’ll be familiar with this idea!).
Joy doesn’t just happen to us. The joy we experience in academic careers depends, to an extent, on what we do to nurture it.
This is something I only realised myself quite recently. I hit a real funk in work, and there was an opportunity to leave. My partner asked me a really good question: what would make you glad you stayed?
This made me think about what I value and love in my work, and realise I have some, if not absolute, control over this. To nurture cheer and things I treasure in my work, I decided to really invest in a research project about tube-feeding in childhood, work with a world-leading researcher on an edited book about a concept I love to think about, reconnect with overseas colleagues on some joint analysis, and pursue an opportunity for some new research in schools.
What can we do to nurture joy? Academia is one of a few careers where you can find people whose ideas and/or company you can revel in, and choose to make part of your job to be working with them. That can be done without international grants or long sabbaticals. Engineer delight into your classrooms, where positive emotions are so contagious. If you plan your teaching so that students experience of learning as joyful (along with other things), chances are you’ll enjoy it more, too.
We all share some responsibility for our own and others’ joys. Academic careers present us with many opportunities to create gratification and special moments for and with others. We’re not talking not a finite resource: like light on a candle, joy multiples when spread. Acting in ways that bring delight to others helps us buffer the harder moments by being more centred in collegial warmth, connection, and kindness.
To quote one of those cheesy signs you sometimes see: you can either bring joy to a workplace when you enter it, or when you leave.
In an environment that is so often rejecting, even small acts can be the kernel of something positive and meaningful. Emailing an author to tell them you found something really cool about their paper. Passing on praise from a student to a colleague about their teaching. Thanking a student for contributions in class, or acknowledging their courage in the way they tackled a difficult assignment. Sharing the fact you got rejected with colleagues who see nothing but their failure and your success.
I asked people on twitter for their suggestions. People suggested laughing more (I agree!), smiling more (again, yes!), not taking oneself too seriously (indeed). @drkellyallen’s reply to my question (see above) about colleagues who listen shows what we do can be so powerful for others. @salconsoli also described a role for colleagues in bringing joy, and @emmaTremora highlights how important conscious care is in academic careers.
Such great questions. Not wanting to be glib, but consciously caring for each other and cultivating safe spaces. It happens a lot already, but we can always do this better. Cultures of care allow people to feel supported and therefore more likely to thrive, right? 😊
— Emma Phillips (@EmmaTremora) November 7, 2021
While there’s lots that is frustrating, unfair, and wrong about academic careers, the diversity of possible joys is something to be grateful for.
Joy and milestones in academic careers
One thing I learned in writing this post was how unimportant particular milestones were in terms of joy – to me, and in the responses I got on twitter. It might not be best to attach ourselves too much to particular goals, especially as so many are beyond our control (teaching evaluations, journal article acceptances, research grants). We might magnify joy in academic careers if we unleash it from things over which we have limited influence.
Instead, we might tether joy, notice it, nurture it, and spread it through more dispersed, softer things. Like the attention we pay to what is happening in class and acknowledging we have had something to do with making that happen.
Can joy be a guide to us doing well in academic careers?
Or even a barometer for whether an academic career is right for us? If we focus on the amount and frequency of joy, maybe not. My experience has been there can be really long, deep lulls, but I’ve come out of each one, and am glad I stuck with it.
I think the better question to ask oneself is about the kinds of joys that academic careers can offer. If they are what makes our heart sing, but we are finding them in short supply, we might reflect on how we notice, nurture and spread delights of the kind that really matters to us.